Category: Sam Billen

(Re)Covered, vol. XX: more covers of and from
Sam Billen, The Farewell Drifters, Rufus Wainwright, Dylan & more!

June 11th, 2011 — 08:54 pm

Our tendency towards revisiting posts gone by through the lens of new releases and projects is especially apropos this weekend, given the continued recovery efforts in our little tornado-ravaged town.   While the rest of us sift through the rubble, let’s sift through the archives, taking account of some new and noteworthy works from artists featured previously here on Cover Lay Down. 

We first featured young started-out-bluegrass band the Farewell Drifters on the release of the hook-heavy Yellow Tag Mondays, their 2010 release; back then, they were already leaning towards a broader stew of Americana and indie roots music, and you could hear both their influences and their growing trend towards folkrock in the Beatles covers we posted, which had been recorded a year apart from each other.

Today, in a (Re)covered two-fer, the Drifters bring us a song that we visited through other coverage way back on the tenth anniversary of Sept. 11, and like the rest of their newest album, it’s another step towards something rich and subtly different, both more mainstream and more original in sound and sensibility, couched in deeply layered pop-rock with just a hint of ‘grass, though relatively true to the original in most other ways. The cover – a version of Simon and Garfunkel’s Only Living Boy In New York – is nowhere near as sweet or somber as the Shawn Colvin cover that so deeply speaks to my soul, but these days, being in the thick of the disaster, I need hope more than I need sadness, and this bonus track from Echo Boom, released just last week, provides just the trick, making for some fine summer soundtrack material.

  • Farewell Drifters: Only Living Boy In New York (orig. Simon and Garfunkel)

    (from Echo Boom, 2011)

Bonus Tracks:

Sam Billen is a stand-up, sensitive indie musician and producer who has shown up on Cover Lay Down several times, both for his several holiday projects and for REMOVERs, the electrofolk remix and coverage project which he has been building and posting – in public and entirely for free – for over a year as he adjusts to the home studio joys of new fatherhood. He’s long been on the top of our watchlist, in part because of the sheer authenticity of both his voice and the evident care and craftsmanship with which he produces his material, and in part because, unlike most musicians, he comes off as perfectly sincere, even humble in both his work and his occasional emails announcing new developments in that work.

But Sam gets major kudos for reaching out this time around – because in the midst of the chaos we’ve experienced since the tornado hit our tiny town, it was genuinely touching to receive an email that contained both a full paragraph reaching out to us in the context of that disaster, thanking us for our reporting of it and sending hope that we are all okay out here, and a link to the newest songs which Sam, his brother, and his father have taken on: a set of loving living-room covers of predominantly countrypop hits, just three guitars and voices taking on Neil Young and others, as honest as a campfire circle among family. Here’s two of my favorites, with encouragement to check out the rest of ‘em over at The Billen Brothers’ YouTube channel – plus an older bonus from the now-completed REMOVERs project.

  • The Billen Brothers: Ventura Highway (orig. America)

  • The Billen Brothers: I Will (orig. The Beatles)

Our 2007 feature on the Wainwright/McGarrigle Family was the very first of our Folk Family features; since then, we’ve revisited the extended clan multiple times, making note of Loudon’s Charlie Poole tribute, youngest daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche‘s delightful work as a solo singer-songwriter, and Kate McGarrigle’s passing last winter after a long struggle with cancer. Now, we return once more to report on a new work from what is perhaps the least “folk” of the modern Wainwright clan: Rufus, who has made a name for himself in movie soundtracks and pop circles as a balladeer, forging far beyond the folk roots which mother Kate and father Loudon set before him.

To be fair, Rufus has crossover appeal to folk audiences; as such, we’ve covered him here, too. But though the new Rufus box set House of Rufus – 19 full-length discs, both CDs and DVDs, a relatively complete compendium of demos, in-studio rarities, side projects, soundtrack cuts, live material, and 6 studio albums – primarily focuses on his work as a nuanced pop crooner (including the entirety of his infamous Carnegie Hall Judy Garland tribute), the sheer breadth is wide enough by far to be well worth collecting, including a vast and varied compendium of his collaborative work with family members and friends, many of which we’ve celebrated here before, and a few of which (most notably, a delicious duet on Richard Thompson’s Down Where The Drunkards Roll performed with his father which, unfortunately, I’ve been asked not to release too early) are otherwise entirely unavailable. Here’s a couple other favorites from the box and beyond, just to show the diversity potential in such a sweeping set of coverage.

Finally: social and professional pressures caused us to skip past two Bob Dylan tributes as his birthday came and went towards the end of May; recent tornado events in our local area kept us from coming back until now. But the pair is worth noting, even now, in part because both feature well-known, long-standing artists taking on the Dylan canon with aplomb.

First and foremost, Ralph “Streets of London” McTell released an EP-length set of Dylan covers two weeks ago, and though nobody seems to have noticed except astute Aussie folkwatchers Timber and Steel, the set is absolutely worth finding and purchasing. Somewhat akin in tone and timbre to the late Johnny Cash’s reinterpretation of the work of others late in his own life, yet imbued with McTell’s distinctive britfolk tones and fingerpicking, the six songs here are darkened with age, and deep with the pensive eye and mind of a fellow folksinger who has seen his share of fame, which is to say: as T&S notes, McTell’s Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright sounds like the song was written for him. Check out the full tribute here.

Second and no less noteworthy, Red House Records took advantage of Dylan’s 70th to release a decade-later follow-up to their defining Dylan folk tribute. Like the “original”, A Nod To Bob 2, the second release in this series, stars a set of recognizable folk artists taking on the canon – though notably, this time around, a few cuts can be found elsewhere, such as Danny Schmidt’s Buckets of Rain, or Eliza Gilkyson’s Jokerman, and some of these artists, such as John Gorka, are no longer in the prime of their careers, and their voices show it. Still, the roster here is sound, and the interpretations well-selected, with deeper cuts than the last round, and standouts all around, including a wonderful wail from the Jimmy LaFave, the Texan master of Dylan troubadour coverage, a delightfully bouncy, bluesy take from Hot Tuna, a truly sultry country blues from Pieta Brown, and Meg Hutchinson’s wonderful, echoing piano-driven reinvention of rarity Born In Time – the latter pair of which we could not help but pass along.

While we’re all about the artists here, and our server costs continue to rise as our popularity continues to grow, here at Cover Lay Down, we believe in passing it forward. So although we encourage you to check out and purchase albums by all artists featured here before moving on, Cover Lay Down is pledging 40% of all donations given between now and June 30th to rebuilding our local community after the recent tornado cut a swath through the hills and into our downtown area, destroying our Town Offices and leaving well over 100 people homeless. Won’t you consider helping out? Click here to donate.

15 comments » | (Re)Covered, Bob Dylan, Rufus Wainwright, Sam Billen, The Farewell Drifters

(Re)Covered: Rising Stars
Arborea, Sam Billen, Mike and Ruthy

May 1st, 2010 — 05:51 am

The newest twigs and branches of the folk movement are still growing strong, if this month’s inbox is any indication – and that’s a very good thing, indeed. So today, for our regular weekend feature, we present news about a set of relatively new, relatively young artists that we’ve posted about before, making them ineligible for inclusion in our regular New Artists, Old Songs feature series…but perfect for a particularly focused edition of (Re)Covered.

A majestic set came in last week from Arborea, a Maine-based indiefolk duo who I’m dying to see live. We’ve pushed the echoey, delicate, almost nufolk sound of Shanti and Buck Curran in the midst of several features, most recently for their work as part of last year’s excellent Odetta tribute from Wears The Trousers, but never truly written about their work alone. But these stunning new recordings force my hand: “spooky” and “shimmering”, inviting further comparison with the work of Vashti Bunyan, Karen Dalton, Sandy Denny, Devandra Banhardt, and Sam Amidon, and with the birdsong tones and woodsy atmosphere of their rural origin.

Today’s trifecta, sent along on the tailwinds of their most recent release House of Sticks, aptly represents the fine balance between tradition and experimental delicacy which we’ve come to expect of Arborea. The two whole tracks – a Tim Buckley cover recorded at SXSW which will appear on their next studio recording, and a video from a February house concert in France which mixes an Arborea original with familiar Led Zeppelin and Dylan tunes – maintain the etherial tones of their studio sound, demonstrating once again that the raw, organic delicacy of their early work is neither fluke nor parlor trick.

There’s also a frustratingly partial halftrack sample from We Are All One, In The Sun, an upcoming tribute to American Primitive artist Robbie Basho, curated by Buck and featuring tracks from Meg Baird, Helen Espvall, and others, which – despite containing Basho-influenced originals as well as several covers – nonetheless joins an ongoing dead heat for the top spot in my list of this year’s tributes and compilations. And, as a bonus, I’ve included both of the Arborea tracks we’ve posted here before. Listen, and be transported.

  • Arborea: Phantasmagoria In Two (orig. Tim Buckley)

    (unreleased, 2009)

Bonus Tracks:

Way on the other end of the sound spectrum, Kansas singer-songwriter Sam Billen – whose “achingly fragile” version of Auld Lang Syne we posted at the New Year – has recently added two more tracks to REMOVERs, an ongoing covers and remixes project “of songs that influence [his] music” which he’s been producing in his home studio in and among the various stresses and joys of new fatherhood, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Trusting any artist’s listed influences can be a challenge in the catch-’em-all world of MySpace and promotional soundalike set-ups; it’s hard enough to know what to make of artists who cite folk, rock, and techno all at once, let alone those who, like Sam, include Todd Rundgren and The Yellow Magic Orchestra on their list, and yet come out with sparse, gentle, well-curated folk albums for the holidays. But whether you find yourself familiar with the modern indie alt-rock namedropping or just shake your head at the names listed for the coming project, there’s something both unifying and unified about this set, and it’s not just how Billen makes these songs sound right in his own voice and modality.

As you might expect from the premise, much of the sound on this album bleeds past the boundaries of electrofolk into a kind of gentle-beat DJ fare, hypnotic and chilled. But Billen’s relatively sparse treatment on tracks such as The Republic Tigers’ Made Concrete and his fuzzed-out remix of Capybara’s The Wimp come off perfectly balanced between the post-folk work of Sufjan Stevens and the electroindie moodmusic of The Postal Service. And sure enough, in apt acknowledgement of those influences, the series – which to date contains six tracks, all available for stream and download perfectly gratis via The Record Machine – includes covers of both artists. His take on Sufjan is a personal favorite, a deliciously etherial boundary-crossing dreamscape built from hoarse harmonies, bells, banjo, and just the right touch of electronic interference. Check it out, and don’t forget to pick up his previous albums, too – both the all-acoustic Tokyo Sessions EP and his most recent full-length Headphones and Cellphones, while vastly different, come highly recommended.

Bonus Track:

In other news: Folk Rock has always been a bit tricky to define on this side of the Atlantic Ocean; outside of the traditional grounding of the British Isles, most modern electrified music with a solid beat comes in categorized as just-plain-rock of one sort or another, and sure enough, hearing Mike and Ruthy‘s 2008 original I’m Going To Get My Baby Out Of Jail on this morning’s radio was more like a fresh blast from some delicious combination of the Velvet Underground and Cowboy Junkies than anything – and a far cry from the sometimes delicate, sometimes rootsy acoustic folk sound which has previously characterized the bulk of their work as a duo, as solo artists, and as members of The Mammals.

Which reminded me that Mike and Ruthy, who we first featured within a substantive post on Ruth’s work in various guises, are currently raising funds via Kickstarter to release their newest and upcoming album Million To One – which, judging from the album cover, the Kickstarter video, and the album description on their webpage, is bound to continue their move towards a broad redefinition of the American folk rock sound. Nothing new to post, yet – the album is recorded, but no tracks have been released – but with the recent decision to close our archives, it’s a good time to repost some older favorites from the married ex-Mammals, in the hopes that it will help spur donations to the cause…all of which come with the usual goodies, rewards, and extras, as good micro-finance models should.

1,213 comments » | (Re)Covered, Arborea, Mike and Ruthy, Sam Billen